The Dangers of Divided Responsibility

The rhetoric around climate change has shifted substantially in the last 5 years. There is a new urgency to declare it an emergency, to draw attention to global warming and its impacts, and to set ambitious emission reduction targets. International organisations, multinational corporations, networks of activists, national governments, local stakeholders; the majority from all sectors are singing from the same hymn sheet.

This shift is great news, but the challenges of transforming policy into action and rhetoric into reality are immense. Concerted efforts are required, not just voices in harmony. And yet, speaking together is much easier than working together.

A major reason that ambitious action is so difficult is that the responsibility for achieving the desired outcomes is divided and subdivided. Individuals are not only unsure what they can do personally, but even within organisations or government bodies, policy- and decision-makers are too often confused about their roles and responsibilities. Where do they fit in relation to the roles and responsibilities of others, and whose resources are available to do what? The result is often inefficiency if not inertia.

Let me use surface transport in England as an example. (I’m talking about England only – if you add in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s even more complicated!)

Most funding for transport comes from the central government, but Ministers and civil servants have very little responsibility for detailed planning and implementation. For national or strategic infrastructure, arms-length companies such as Highways England and Network Rail were established to get such things done. Meanwhile, the responsibility for local roads lies with local city and county governments, usually using monies distributed by or sometimes bid for from central government. However, to make things more confusing, in many parts of England there are two tiers of local government – county and district or city and borough. The county or city is the local transport authority, but the district is responsible for land use planning.

I (and I am not alone) have argued in past blogs that land use planning, the density of housing and the location of employment and amenities have an integral role to play in reducing the need to travel and changing how people travel, thereby reducing carbon emissions from private vehicles. Place-making determines whether people have space to walk and cycle, and where they can walk and cycle to. Yet different people in different levels and departments of government are planning where housing and services are located than those planning the infrastructure for people to walk and cycle on.

Density and the relative locations of where people live, work and play also influence the viability of public and shared transport. Yet the responsibility for providing those transport services often lies with private operators, who may negotiate with the higher tier local transport authority (e.g. the county), or even the national governments when it comes to rail operators, for the provision of infrastructure, financial support, and favourable policies. Funding for public transport operations or revenue spend is also quite separate from any budgets for building infrastructure and capital projects, and as it is rarely permitted to mix these resources, so the interactions between the outcomes of capital and revenue investment is rarely accounted for in advance.

Meanwhile, another source of transport funding at the local level can be gathered from fees, fines and permits for parking on- and off-street. Yet those charges are usually collected by the district or borough level of government, even though other local roads and transport matters are managed at city or county level. So even the responsibility to put in electric vehicle charge points, for example, is divided between levels of government. And I haven’t even started writing about the movement of goods by private fleets or the roles of private utility companies providing electricity and other services under the roads.

Confused? You’re not alone. Nonetheless, we must find ways to transform the rhetoric into reality – for sustainable surface transport and all the other sectors where ambitions for an equitable, vibrant and zero-carbon world could otherwise be derailed by divided responsibility.

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